mnmlist: Against ‘Ease’ and Convenience in Democracy

Each year I renew my membership of the Labour Party in the same way. I sit at my desk and write a cheque. The party would prefer me to pay by Direct Debit. It is, they say, ‘easier’ for me and saves the party money. A Direct Debit would, indeed, be easier. Without my doing anything my subscription would go to the party and my membership would be maintained without any thought or need for decision on my part.

And that’s my problem. My membership would be unthinking; another bill like the mortgage or council tax dealt with as if by magic. But politics is, or at least ought to be different. Politics is about competing visions of the Good Society, about choosing between the Platonic reflections on the cave wall of different ideologies. At a more base level it is about a society determining who gets what and who benefits or suffers the consequences of these decisions. So when my membership renewal drops through the letterbox, it gives me a chance to reflect and consider. Do I still want to be a member of this organisation? Can I bear its imperfections, its compromises, its frustrations? Has the party really gone too far this time?

So I hope that the party will forgive me, but I will continue to pay year by year. I like the necessity of taking positive steps to renew, to know that my renewal is done honestly, and truly reflects my emotional and intellectual association with the party and that I am not simply a member because I forgot to cancel the Direct Debit in time.

For similar reasons I despise the postal vote. I understand and accept that some people need a postal vote, for example if they would be on holiday or working away on Election Day. But the drive to recruit ever more people to a postal vote leaves me cold, and uneasy about our democracy aside from legitimate concerns about the potential loss of the secrecy of the ballot and scope for corrupt practices. Those with postal votes vote earlier than those of us who vote in person. They miss one or two weeks of the arguments of the campaign. They decide on even more imperfect evidence than the rest of us. Consequently, their votes are less considered than those of folk who turn up on Polling Day.

Of course postal voting is ‘easier.’ Put your cross in the box and pop it in the post box on the way to work. Easy-peasy, no effort required. Again, that’s the problem. No effort required. The choice of who runs our council or who forms the government is important. It matters. Surely such an important decision deserves a bit of time, deserves a deliberate and concentrated effort? The walk to the Polling Station offers a few minutes to think, to consider the candidates. A quick check of the names of the proposers – ooh, the woman from number 60 is a Liberal! – a brief social interaction with the staff at the polling station, and then a moment in the booth. A read through of all the candidates and a silent ‘Thank you’ to them all for standing and upholding democracy by so doing and then, stubby pencil tied to the booth in hand, hovering by the name of the preferred candidate(s) until, finally, it is done! Then walk to the ballot box and, if you are old fashioned like me, show the official mark to the clerk and put the vote into the box. Democratic duty done.

On the way home consider this. That vote means something. It might not make the difference between victory and defeat for your candidate but that’s not important. It means that on this day, we the people have come together at the same time and truly held power in our hands. We have not, as the postal voters have, just done something for convenience; performed an individual act. We have deliberately, consciously and, most importantly, collectively decided the fates of those who wish to represent us.

On Election Day we are really One Nation. Democracy is surely too important to be reduced to a question of ease and convenience. Yes, turnout has fallen over the years. But, perhaps, rather than obsessing about making voting ‘easier’ by postal votes, polling stations in supermarkets or whatever other ideas the twelve year olds come up with, we should all consider how politics can be held in higher esteem. Do we need changes in the way parliament works? Could the media report politics better? Do we educate our children in democracy appropriately? Finally, do we need to make elections about real choices, real competing visions of the Good Society or shall we just accept that politics is becoming just another reality TV show?


Dr. Adam Spencer